[guest post by JVW]
Knowing that he had been in declining health, the announcement doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the 41st President, George H.W. Bush, died earlier this evening in Houston. And though he achieved the distinction of being the oldest living ex-President in history, for many of us currently in middle age and older he remains a poignant final chapter of the generation of World War II veterans we grew up with who dominated Washington politics for a half-century, from Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy’s election to the House in 1946 to Bob Dole’s defeat in the Presidential election of 1996.
It seems a little bit silly to sketch out the details of the man’s life, considering they are probably largely known by readers of the blog. The obituary in the Houston Chronicle does a nice job filling in those details, so if anyone needs a refresher I urge you to go there. He led a patrician’s life — son of a Senator, educated at Andover and Yale, country club dances where he met his wife, connections to get him started in the oil business, and entree into GOP politics, and so on.
But, crucially, he had the sense of duty which we once thought was inculcated within the upper classes, but now have cause to wonder if it isn’t passé in this wretched age of Kardashians, Hiltons, and their ilk. He famously went off to war on his eighteenth birthday, flying 58 combat missions and earning distinction as a pilot. After amassing a small fortune in the awl bidness, he entered politics, serving as a Congressman for two terms before moving on to various jobs in the Republican party and with GOP Administrations, culminating with his two terms as Vice President and one term as President.
He was the first Presidential candidate I ever voted for. He wasn’t Ronald Reagan — he didn’t have the stage presence of the Gipper and his conservatism was more tempered and bureaucracy-accommodating than that of his former boss — but he largely pursued a traditional Republican agenda. The two biggest mistakes his administration made were leading the Kurds to believe that U.S. troops would come to their aid and giving in on raising taxes way too early in budget negotiations which probably prevented Republicans from extracting deeper spending concessions from Democrats. On the other hand, the spending limits that he did get in exchange for tax increases ended up vexing his successor during his first year when Congressional Democrats bluntly informed Mr. Clinton that they would have to at least make a semi-legitimate attempt to adhere to the spending caps that had been negotiated, which scotched Bubba’s plans for dozens of new spending initiatives. Based upon what has happened since he left office, a good case can be made that Mr. Bush was overall a successful President.
When he was defeated for reelection in 1992, it amounted to replacing a man whose life had been defined by family, work, and service with one of the worst embodiments of a largely spoiled and selfish generation. Mr. Bush, who sadly turned out to be a rather uninspiring campaigner that year, was disappointed and embittered to lose to a man whom he undoubtedly felt was dishonest and shady. But, ever a true gentleman, Mr. Bush ultimately made his peace with Mr. Clinton and even worked with him on various charitable initiatives during the administration of his son and namesake. He charmed everyone with his self-deprecating humor, his insistence on sky-diving to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and his justifiable pride in the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren.
He’s now reunited with his beloved Barbara, and sadly I don’t think we’ll see the likes of him at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue anytime soon, if indeed ever again. Rest in peace, sir. We miss you already.
UPDATE: The estimable David Burge — “Iowahawk” — reminds us that there is one remaining World War II veteran who is a current head of state.